(London, May 11, 2004) — The Nigerian government should immediately conduct an independent investigation into the massacre of several hundred people in Yelwa on May 2, Human Rights Watch said today. The federal and state authorities should also take concrete steps to prevent a further escalation of interethnic violence in Plateau State.
“Unlike the findings of previous commissions of inquiry, the results of this investigation should be made public and acted upon,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.
Armed members of the predominantly Christian Tarok ethnic group on May 2 attacked the town of Yelwa, in the southern part of Plateau State, apparently in reprisal for earlier attacks against Taroks by members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group. Local sources described the attack on Yelwa, where the majority of the population is Fulani, as devastating.
Several hundred people were killed according to credible accounts based on the testimonies of local residents, although an accurate death toll is not yet available. The perpetrators used fire arms and machetes, and the victims were buried in several mass graves. There was also widespread destruction in the town. Thousands of inhabitants of Yelwa have been displaced, and the area has become extremely polarized.
The attack on Yelwa followed a string of earlier attacks and counterattacks by Taroks and Fulanis, who have been engaged in a prolonged conflict over land use as well as political and economic control.
Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to bring to justice those responsible for the Yelwa killings, particularly leaders who orchestrated the attacks. To prevent a further spread of violence, the authorities should take concrete measures including deploying an adequate number of police in areas of tension and disarming local militia in the state.
Plateau State has been ravaged by interethnic conflict since an unprecedented outbreak of violence in the state capital, Jos, claimed as many as one thousand lives in September 2001. The government set up a commission of inquiry into the violence in Jos, but has still not published its findings. Hundreds of people — both Taroks and Fulanis — have been killed in different parts of the state since 2002. The fighting around Yelwa has intensified since February 2004, when scores of people died, including around 50 Taroks reportedly killed by Fulanis in Yelwa at the end of February.
“In light of the pattern of violence in Plateau State over recent months, with each community seeking to avenge attacks by their opponents, the latest outbreak should have come as no surprise to federal and state authorities,” said Takirambudde. “Yet the Nigerian government took no action to preempt the massacre.”
Human Rights Watch denounced the failure of the Nigerian government and the security forces to provide security to the population of Plateau State. In the latest incident, police and army reinforcements were only sent to Yelwa after hundreds of people had already been killed.
“The government’s neglect of the situation in Plateau over the last three years has resulted in an endless cycle of revenge,” Takirambudde said. “Not only have the police been unwilling or unable to stop the fighting, but the government has not taken responsibility for finding a lasting solution to the crisis.”